January 20, 2019

Nobel Medal’s Auction Shines Light on Professor Who Shielded Jews

The auction of a Nobel Prize gold medallion on March 30 has brought unexpected attention to a German professor who shielded Jewish students during the Hitler era and defended anti-Nazi resistors.

The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded in 1927 to Heinrich Otto Wieland, a biochemistry pioneer, for his research on the constitution of bile acids. Subsequently, he determined the chemical structure of cholesterol.

After the passage of the racist Nuremberg Laws in 1935, which called for the expulsion of all Jewish, or partially Jewish, students, Wieland used his prestige and position as professor at the University of Munich to retain his Jewish students as his “personal guests.”

One of his protected students was half-Jewish Hans Conrad Leipelt, a member of the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance group, who was denounced to the Gestapo.

In a rare display of civic courage, Wieland testified on behalf of Leipelt, who was nevertheless condemned by a Nazi court and beheaded in early 1945. Wieland’s position and prestige saved him from a similar fate.

The Nobel medal, whose gold value alone stands at about $8,700, was put on the market by the late scientist’s grandson through Nate D. Sanders Auctions of Los Angeles.

Bidding started at $325,000 and closed at $395,000, according to Sanders spokesman Sam Heller. In line with company policy, Heller did not disclose the name of the successful bidder.

Since 1901, 889 Nobel Prize medals have been awarded, of which only eight were sold or auctioned by the recipients or their descendants. The prize for Wieland’s 23-karat medallion is in the middle range of the eight sold or auctioned.

The Nobel Peace Prize awarded in 1903 to Britain’s William Randal Cremer for his work in promoting arbitration of international disputes, fetched only $17,000. On the other end of the scale, the medal awarded British scientist James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was bought for $4.76 million by a Russian billionaire, who then returned the medal to Watson.

Illustrating the vagaries of the market, Francis Crick, the co-discoverer with Watson of the DNA structure, got $2.3 million for his Nobel medallion.

The heirs of William Faulkner, winner of the 1949 Nobel Prize in literature, withdrew the medallion from bidding when the highest auction bid got stuck at $425,000.

Albert Einstein bequeathed his 1921 Nobel Prize medal in physics for display at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.